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Tehilim/Psalms 32:1 Blessed is he whose transgression is forgiven, whose sin is covered.
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Pesikta Rabbati cites this verse as one of the proofs that HaShem is eager to forgive on Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement. The first verse of the psalm contains two Qal passive participles: from , often "to lift, raise or carry" but also "to forgive", and from , "to cover or conceal". Pesikta Rabbati connects these words with "You forgave the iniquity of your people; you pardoned all their sin" (Psalm 85:3, NRSV), which uses the same verbs as our text, and then goes on to tell a story about the accuser coming before HaShem on Yom Kippur.
This story, while not claimed to be true in a factual or historical sense, illustrates the principle that G-d is seeking reconciliation with the Jewish people, despite their sins. The fourth and fifth stanzas of the Amidah, prayed at least three times each day2 in the synagogue, ask G-d first to cause us to repent and turn to Him, then to forgive our sin, to pardon and forgive. On the shabbat known as Shabbat Shuva, the shabbat that always comes between Yom Teruah and Yom Kippur, in the ten day period known as the Days of Awe, the haftarah portion3 is taken from the book of Hosea starting: "Return, O Israel, to the L-RD your G-d, for you have fallen because of your sin. Take words with you and return to the L-RD. Say to Him: 'Forgive all guilt and accept what is good; instead of bulls we will pay the offering of our lips'" (Hosea 14:2-3, JPS). Here G-d seems to be encouraging the people to return to Him, not with sacrifices, but with words of repentance - certainly this is the way the passage is read by the Sages after the destruction of the Temple.
After the reading from Hosea, the Ashkenazic haftarah continues with verses from the prophet Joel: "Blow a horn in Zion, solemnize a fast, proclaim an assembly! Gather the people, bid the congregation purify themselves. Bring together the old, gather the babes and the sucklings at the breast; let the bridegroom come out of his chamber, the bride from her canopied couch. Between the portico and the altar, let the priests, the L-RD's ministers, weep and say: 'Oh, spare Your people, L-RD! Let not Your possession become a mockery, to be taunted by nations! Let not the peoples say, 'Where is their G-d?'" (Joel 2:15-17, JPS). This calls the people together to a solemn assembly and fast, at which all are to be present as this is a matter of utmost importance. Even the old and the young, even the newly married couple, are to take part. The Sephardic haftarah from the prophet Micah includes the verses: "Who is a G-d like You, pardoning iniquity and passing over transgression for the remnant of His inheritance? He does not retain His anger forever, because He delights in steadfast love. He will again have compassion on us; He will tread our iniquities underfoot. You will cast all our sins into the depths of the sea" (Micah 7:18-19, ESV). These texts prepare us for the day of Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement, when Israel as a whole, as a community, as the "kingdom of priests and a holy nation" (Shemot 19:6, JPS), gather before the L-rd to confess their sin and cry out for forgiveness.
On Yom Kippur itself, it is a day of fasting, of denying the flesh. Jewish people abstain from a variety of "normal" activities in addition to the regular Shabbat observances: no washing, no leather shoes, no sex and, of course, no food or drink unless under medical instructions. More than the physical fasting though, what is it that G-d requires? The haftarah portion for the day includes a conversation between the people and the L-rd: "'Why, when we fasted, did You not see? When we starved our bodies, did You pay no heed?' Because on your fast day you see to your business and oppress all your laborers! Because you fast in strife and contention, and you strike with a wicked fist! Your fasting today is not such as to make your voice heard on high. Is such the fast I desire, a day for men to starve their bodies? Is it bowing the head like a bulrush and lying in sackcloth and ashes? Do you call that a fast, a day when the L-RD is favourable?" (Isaiah 58:3-5, JPS). Clearly there must be more than this. The L-rd explains: "No, this is the fast I desire: to unlock fetters of wickedness, and untie the cords of the yoke to let the oppressed go free; to break off every yoke. It is to share your bread with the hungry, and to take the wretched poor into your home; when you see the naked, to clothe him, and not to ignore your own kin. Then shall your light burst through like the dawn and your healing spring up quickly; your Vindicator shall march before you, The Presence of the L-RD shall be your rear guard" (vv. 6-8, JPS). Practical action is required: attending to the needs of others and releasing those in bondage - that is the fast that enables real contact with the Almighty!
Sometimes as believers, we lose sight of G-d's heart in our obsession with ourselves. Certainly, we must each of us have a relationship with Father G-d, in Messiah Yeshua; that is the cornerstone of everything else (Acts 4:11, Ephesians 2:20), but our life is to be more than that. We are to reflect the love that G-d has poured out on us to those around us, including the unloved and the unlovely. The Psalmist says, "For as high as the heavens are above the earth, so great is His steadfast love toward those who fear Him; as far as the east is from the west, so far does He remove our transgressions from us" (Psalm 103:11-12, ESV).
Yeshua makes it clear that the receipt of G-d's love and forgiveness is reciprocal. During the meal at the home of Simon the Pharisee, Yeshua had allowed a woman described as "a sinner" to wash His feet with her tears and anoint them with perfume. Answering Simon's unspoken question, Yeshua compared his hospitality with her lavish expression of love and said, "her sins, which are many, are forgiven -- for she loved much. But he who is forgiven little, loves little" (Luke 7:47, ESV). The L-rd's prayer - "Forgive us our debts, as we also have forgiven our debtors" (Matthew 6:12, ESV) - and Yeshua's parable about the man thrown into prison after being released from a debt of 10,000 talents yet refusing to release his fellow servant from a debt of 100 denarii, with Yeshua's warning: "So also My heavenly Father will do to every one of you, if you do not forgive your brother from your heart" (Matthew 18:35, ESV), make it clear that the only way to receive G-d's mercy, to have our sin removed, is to show mercy and forgive others. "Freely you received, freely give" (Matthew 10:8, NASB).
This Yom Kippur, two things are necessary: seeking G-d's forgiveness and sharing G-d's forgiveness. We must forgive others for their offences against us - taking an explicit decision to release the debt - and then we will be able to receive G-d's forgiveness into our own lives. That is the fast that G-d requires: not just a physical show, but a real heart release that reaches out to others and blesses them with no other return than that G-d should release and bless us.
1. - The purple is said to represent the attribute of mercy, so that the iniquities are hidden beneath G-d's mercy.
2. - except Shabbat, when it is tradition not to make any requests for ourselves, only to praise G-d.
3. - the portion from the prophets traditionally chosen to accompany the Torah portion for the week.
Further Study: Isaiah 43:18-25; Hosea 6:1-3; Hebrews 13:1-3
Has someone offended you in the past year, that you find impossible to
completely forgive? Today is the day not only to release them, but as you do
so, to release yourself. Call out to G-d and set that train in motion, so
that G-d's love may flow through you.
© Jonathan Allen, 2013
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© Jonathan Allen, 2013
Your turn - what do you think of the ideas in this drash ?Like most print and online magazines, we reserve the right to edit or publish only those comments we feel are edifying in tone and content.